The office of President of the United States of America is the most important in the world, and the person who holds it is granted a massive amount of power and responsibility. The President is the top elected official in the United States, someone who the American public put their trust and faith into when deciding to choose him. He is the representative and embodiment of the American people, the leader of the United States’ government, and represents the pinnacle of achievement towards the ‘American Dream’. Yet he is also human, and like all humans he is prone to error, miscalculation, and lapses in judgment.
Of course, because of the trust granted to him by the public, and the perceived higher moral and occupational standards that come with the job, when a president errs he is subject to much more scrutiny than the average person. The term ‘scandal’ is applied to the famous cases in which a president has suffered from such a error or lapse in judgment, and in these cases various consequences have befallen the office of the President, ranging from the erosion of public trust in the position to impeachment processions being undertaken. Yet the parameters defining a ‘real’ scandal are ambiguous, and history has shown that some actions have caused more and less of a scandal than they really warranted.
No president ever acts or has ever acted out of malicious intent. The people who execute the office of the Presidency often do so following a prestigious or lengthy career in public service, or who are genuinely concerned about the condition of the country they are running. Their intentions and actions are always, in their mind, beneficial for the nation. This must be kept in mind when considering the reasons behind why certain presidents subject to scandals acted as they did. However pure the intentions of a president may be, however, the office he holds is the top official position in the United States, and thus is expected to be the most upstanding and upholding of law and accountability. When a president circumvents or disregards the law or refuses to be accountable and take responsibility for his actions, a scandal is often the result. Examples of this are seen clearly in the Iran-Contra and Watergate Scandals that befell the Reagan and Nixon presidencies. In the case of Iran-Contra, president Reagan, along with members of his staff and the CIA, set into motion a complex series of interactions, arms and drug trades, and money peddling in order to secure the freeing of American hostages held by Iranian-backed militants and also topple the left-leaning Nicaraguan government. The intentions of the American operatives who oversaw this were, in their minds, good: they were attempting to seek the release of hostage Americans and topple a government that they perceived to be an ideological threat to the United States. However, the way they went about the operation, by trading through arms dealers, supporting drug cartels, and assisting a militia known for its notorious human rights abuses, was outside the realm of law. To add to the issue, Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the events that took place, as well as the destruction of evidence and documents by his operatives, eliminated any accountability in his position as president.
Nixon’s scandal was a result of a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee headquarters by men hired by Nixon’s campaign staff. Following the break-ins, Nixon attempted to cover-up his connection to the burglars, and, as an investigation was mounted, refused to release tapes that recorded conversations which would have proven his guilt. Nixon’s refusal to take responsibility, as well as his guilt in the entire affair, destroyed the accountability of the office and also caused what is considered to be the biggest scandal in presidential history. As these two examples in presidential scandal have made apparent, actions taken outside the realm of law and for which responsibility is not taken cause scandal, and these scandals are often very warranted. The President is elected into his position by a trusting public, who believe that he will execute his office under the same laws and guidelines that they are subject to. When the president fails to do that, he has destroyed not only the trust of the public in him, but also in the office itself. When accountability cannot be held for the presidency, the perceived superior values and conduct that the office entails disappear, and the position is not as sacred in the eye of the public.
Yet these are not the only examples of scandal in presidential history, nor are the reasons behind them the only cause of political scandal. The ‘Teapot Dome’ scandal which befell the Harding administration did not involve actions taken by the office of the president which were outside the realm of law, but rather involved cases of corruption within the president’s staff. Interior Secretary Albert Fall leased oil production rights at Teapot Dome, which was an oil-producing area designated as a Naval Oil Reserve, to Mammoth Oil and Pan American Petroleum. These leases were issued without competitive bidding, were very favorable to the oil companies, and resulted in a number of kickbacks for Fall. Fall illegally received over 500,00 dollars in kickback money from the owners of the oil companies. The deal was later investigated by the Senate, in 1927 the Supreme Court ruled that the oil leases had been corruptly obtained, and in 1929 Fall was found guilty of bribery. A case like this also warrants a scandal, because illegal activity was undertaken by the President’s staff. While Harding himself was not implicated in the scandal, the fact that one of his political appointees took part means that Harding holds responsibility as his boss. It is highly unlikely that talk of the transactions never reached Harding’s ears, but regardless of whether or not Harding was responsible for the actual actions himself, the wrongdoing of his subordinates can be linked to the administrative style of the president himself. Illegal activity took place, and the Harding administration’s public reputation was largely destroyed.
Another important scandal in presidential history is the Monica Lewinsky scandal which hit the Clinton administration. Monica Lewinsky was recorded by coworker Linda Tripp saying that she had had a sexual relationship with Clinton while working in the White House from 1995 to 1996. Clinton at first denied having a relationship with Lewinsky, though would later admit in grand jury testimony that he had an ‘improper relationship’ with Lewinsky. The scandal resulted in an impeachment procession against Clinton, though he was acquitted of all charges. The Lewinsky scandal represents a non-political related scandal, in which Clinton had engaged in highly immoral, but not illegal, activity. The ultimate result was that the later part of his presidency became highly bogged-down and revolved around the scandal, while actual punishment was not brought upon Clinton.
Having examined some scandals that have taken place in presidential history, the actions taken or necessary for something to be considered a ‘scandal’ become clear. A president must do something that either is illegal or outside the realm of law, and/or refuse to take responsibility or be accountable for his actions. In each of these major scandals these actions can be seen: a refusal to be accountable and illegal activity took place in the Nixon and Reagan scandals, illegal activity took place in the Teapot dome scandal, and the Lewinsky scandal stemmed from Clinton’s denial of a relationship. A scandal must, in some way, damage the office of the presidency. When a president is unaccountable or when an illegal activity is undertaken by the office, the presidency looses the public’s trust, looses its appearance as being held to a higher standard, and is therefore weakened. Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency, Reagan saw his operatives indicted for illegal activity, Clinton’s presidency ground to a standstill during the investigation, and Harding’s administration saw its Interior Secretary get sent to jail for his actions.
However, despite these events being scandalous, the actual actions that caused them weren’t all in actuality a scandal. When the president does something that would be illegal for a common man to do, that action is indeed a scandal. While in his position, the president is circumventing the laws of the country he is running. Illegal activity is thus scandalous in itself, and should lead to a scandal. Personal behavior, however, or any actions undertaken by the president outside of the realm of the presidency, should not be considered a scandal. What Clinton did was morally bankrupt and wrong, but not illegal, and thus not necessarily worthy of a scandal and definitely not worth of an impeachment hearing. It was his lying to the American people, however, and his overall handling of the chain of events that would cause the scandal to erupt. A president must follow the laws and rules of the country that he governs, and be honest and accountable to the people who trusted him enough to vote him into office. When he does that, he will not see a scandal erupt under his administration.